Living here, and living in other global cities like London, we pivot on a transitional historical moment in the 21st century. Weeks into the panic buying and queues for basic necessities, we now know a long-standing truth - cities like ours are over-supplied with food. And we move this overabundance of food in supermarkets into our homes, as we stuff more groceries into already full cupboards. But we also know another long-standing truth - that we can hurt, humiliate and condemn people through our rejection of cuisines and by deploying food-based slurs. People must have pride in themselves and their place in society to produce good food for paying customers - a truth George Orwell finds in Down and Out in Paris and London.
"What keeps a hôtel [or restaurant] going is the fact that the employees take a genuine pride in their work… The cook does not look on himself as a servant but as a skilled workman… and takes genuine artistic pride in his work… [the waiter] will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself."
Running a restaurant in London 2020 is the most exciting and most painful life choice. Trying to keep any restaurant afloat is a massive challenge, but running a Chinese restaurant really does bring its own set of idiosyncrasies. It’s never been so exciting from the culinary perspective, with the rise of Sichuanese food complimenting the beautiful artistic dexterity of Cantonese dim sum, and with the awareness of ever more Chinese culinary regions, and their gastronomic interactions with China’s 14 international borders. The flavour profiles of Chinese cuisine are clear, they are definitive, and they are considered delicious among an ever-growing global audience. The requisite skills and intricacy in cooking from this huge and varied cuisine are starting to be studied by Western chefs, keen to innovate their repertoire and their kitchens. Dim sum chefs, who are engaged in more of an art form than cooking a cuisine, should be on a par with Western pastry chefs - this lack of recognition is baffling.
These intricate skills and the people who wield them need a social world. Chefs are very unique beings in that when we work 16 hour days for little pay. While our long hours and our status can interfere in our cultural, social and political life; we are hyper-connected to our cities and our citizens. We work in the ‘hospitality’ industry - we practice the art of being ‘hospitable’, creating affinities with people. Our relationships give our work, our skills and abilities meaning. This time last week, my priority was to ensure that my team, most of whom are away from their families across the EU, with no way of reaching out to them for help, would have some money and resources to survive the coming months. This week, after the UK government announced it would cover 80% of the salaries of those who couldn’t work, I turned to how my restaurant could help those most vulnerable in London; to cook to support the elderly and the frontline doctors and nurses unable to buy food in supermarkets. But now, with new UK government rules banning the congregation of three or more people, all my plans are in lockdown and I return once again to my team, starved of the opportunity to provide the hospitality that gives their livelihoods meaning and significance.